Monday, October 10, 2011

Expat Author Interview with Kate Brown

Writer and Filmmaker Kate Brown
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Kate Brown, a British film-maker and writer, has lived in Berlin for a year now. Before that, she lived in Amsterdam for almost eleven years. Speaking Dutch has made learning Deutsch a bit confusing, but she’s enjoying the challenge.

IMBO: Willkommen! Schön dass Du da bist, Kate! How did you get started writing?

Kate: Publishing, for me, started out in the realms of broadcasting. Screen rather than page. I've worked as screenwriter and film director, for the last ten years. In practice this has meant I've spent most of my time writing. A large part of that time has been taken up with writing screenplays which I got paid to write, but which haven't got money to go into production. A frustrating lot, often referred to as 'development hell'. That hell pushed me to start writing prose. 2010 was a good year for me as, after quite a few online publications, I was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize and ended with one short story in their anthology and another in an anthology published by Cinnamon Press. I've got a literary agent now (Jamie Coleman) and I'm putting the final touches to my first novel so that he can approach publishers with it.

I've always written in English, but when I was in Amsterdam, if I made a film based on one of my screenplays, having written it in English, it would then be translated into Dutch, for me to direct it in that language. Strangely enough, I never really had a problem with the process. If you're curious, you can watch my film 'Absolutely Positive' HERE. It's in Dutch, without English subtitles, but the dialogue is sparse, so it's fairly easy to understand.

IMBO: How has being an expat affected what, and the way, you write?

Kate: This in an interesting question. Being an expat has definitely affected me. But it makes me wonder about degrees of expatriatism. My mother's side of my family have always been pretty itinerant and my parents moved to France when I was in my twenties. France is, in its way, as much of a home to me as anywhere else. I lived in Amsterdam for a long time, without ever really coming to terms with the culture. But now I've left, I see how much 'Dutchness' has wormed its way under my skin. And Berlin, well, Berlin is very new to me. I'm quite certain all this movement makes me who I am. And yet, the longer pieces I write often have teenage central characters and I spent my teens in England. So, the things that happened to me personally, at the age I'm fascinated by, happened when I still lived in the country I was born in. And I do think that doesn't go away. 

Place can inspire me, too, but it doesn't always. I've started working on a couple of ideas for films in Berlin since I got here. It's quite possible a part of my next novel will be set in 18th-century Potsdam. While I lived in Amsterdam, I made films set there, but the setting wasn't that relevant. I'm writing more about the Netherlands since I left. My first novel is set in 18th-century France. If nothing else, living in all these places has given me scope, I suppose.

I think I write very much from the perspective of an outsider. One of the things I disliked about Holland was that belonging is so important to the culture. I don't know how to belong; I find it a threatening concept. So that influences what I write about, and how.

IMBO: Let’s say you’ve just boarded a transatlantic flight. As you make your way to your seat, adrenaline shoots through your chest. You’ve dreamt about this moment with this person for years. He/she is sitting in the seat next to yours. Who is it and, assuming you get the nerve up, what will you talk about—for nine hours?

Kate: I think the idea of sitting next to someone and having to talk to them for nine hours is… well… kind of terrifying. If I were in awe of someone I'd probably be scared to open my mouth. I read Janice Galloway's novel 'Clara' recently. It's about the pianist Clara Schumann and her life. I was really enthralled by the book and, that, in combination with your question makes me think it would be fascinating to have a dialogue with a woman like Clara Schumann, someone from the past who 'created' for a living, too. I'm not sure I'd want it to be on a plane, though.

IMBO: Care to share some of your work with us?

Kate: "TwoGirls Under an Apple Tree", shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize, was inspired by a painting called 'Twee kinderen onder een Appelboom' by Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig. I've never seen the painting itself, but I found the postcard in the shop of the Krüller Müller Museum in the Netherlands and was drawn to it. I put the postcard on my desk and looked at it every day, knowing I was going to write something. I was intrigued by the the way the older girl seemed to dominate the younger one. The proportions of the girls seemed exaggerated. It made me think about them, who they were. Why the elder one was so much larger than life? What might the little one do to right that. This was one of those stories I waited for, then when I wrote it, apart from a few details, it came almost whole. This almost never happens, by the way…

"Place de la Revolution", I wrote in Paris. I was on the Faber Academy's first writing workshop and we were sent out to follow people. I came across two people selling sandwiches in a rather quaint, rustic caravan near the Louvre. It was owned by a chain you see selling sandwiches all over Paris, but I didn't know that at the the time and, for a number of reasons, the set up, and the two people working there, made me ponder the nature of identity. Names, expectations. This is what came out – not very quaint or rustic. I'm very happy to have a recording online, because this piece had it's first run as a spoken story and it feels like that's the way it should be.

IMBO: How about a link to a story written by another expat? (If you want, give a short response/review of the story, around 30 words.)

Kate: Unfortunately I can't link to the story itself as it's not online as far as I can tell, but Tania Hershman's short story "Express" in her collection The WhiteRoad perfectly captures how I feel about language, as someone who lives outside the country of her mother tongue. You don't realise how hard you struggle to get your tongue round foreign words, even when you get good at them, until you come home. That sense of trying to fit into another skin, and of hiding your loss of self from yourself, come to life in this story. 

IMBO: Ever get homesick? Has your concept of home changed since you’ve been an expat?  

Kate: Absolutely. I'm not sure I could ever live back in the UK again, but I do get homesick. There was a time back in Amsterdam when things were going badly and I'd think to myself "I want to go home". I soon realised, though, that I didn't know anymore where home was. It was very unsettling. 

I was in London in April of this year, when the weather was great, and I went to visit a friend outside the city. I kept staring at the horse chestnut trees in bloom and thinking "Wow. This is like it was when I was a kid" – the nearest a non-belonger can feel to belonging, perhaps.

Thank you for stopping by and sharing a bit of your life with us, Kate. I wish you tons of success with your career!

I must be off,


Kate Brown is a British film-maker and writer, living in Berlin. Her films 'Julie & Herman' and 'Absolutely Positive' have been shown at festivals and on television in Europe and the USA. Her short stories are published online and, in print, by Cinnamon Press and in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2010.

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Available to sweet people everywhere HERE